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Book Review - Spiritual Choices

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1988, Volume 5., Number 1, pages 145-149. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Spiritual Choices: The Problem of Recognizing Authentic and Inauthentic Paths to Inner Transformation. 

Edited by Dick Anthony, Bruce Ecker, and Ken Wilber. Paragon House. New York. 1987. 448 pages. $24.95 hardcover-, $12.95 paper.

Reviewed by Timothy Brauns

Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary

"To shop in today’s psychospiritual “supermarket is to encounter a confounding diversity of offerings ... the task of choosing among these offerings is intricate and subtle, and not without an element of risk.” This statement from the introduction of the book Spiritual Choices reflects the challenge of the spiritual search for many in contemporary American culture. Truly, some of the products on the shelf are "nutritious;” some are devoid of substantive value; some are downright dangerous. how can one tell the real from the pretender? The editors of this book set for themselves the task of developing criteria for discernment as to what constitutes an authentic path to spiritual transformation.

Spiritual Choices grew out of a seminar conducted at the Center for the Study of New Religious Movements at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. The focus of the seminar was “the problem of discerning between helpful and harmful involvement in the new religions.” The editors of this book, all of whom identify themselves as participant-observers of the new religious movements (NRMs), saw the need to steer a path between the two extremes of what they termed “blanket reductionism of the opposition” and “the wide open ecumenism eclecticism and optimism of the supporters.” Thus, while they embrace the transformative capabilities of mysticism especially in its eastern expressions, they resist embracing everything that comes along in that guise as being .spiritual.”

The direction of the work is therefore to develop both criteria and sensibilities for assessing the potential of specific spiritual groups and allowing the participant to experience authentic spiritual transformations without the acute negative psychological effects that are possible in new religious groups. This is done first through the promulgation of a typology of religious groups called "Me Anthony Typology,” which is then further explained through a series of interviews with and essays by participants in various NRMS. Tle interviews include Werner Erhard of EST (now The Forum), Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), Dick Anthony (a follower of Meher Baba), Claudio Naranjo, and an essay on the Zen Buddhist movement in America by Steven Tipton. This is followed by a series of essays which explore some of the more problematic aspects of involvement in NRMS. The book concludes with an interview with Jacob Needleman about the nature of transformative religion, and an essay concerning the nature of knowing with respect to the spiritual search.

The Anthony typology is a classification that attempts to identify which kinds of groups lend themselves to authentic spiritual growth. In the process of doing this, it also isolates the kinds of groups that will tend toward being destructive. Three divisions compose the classification.

The first division is called monistic-dualistic, and concerns the particular group’s perception of the nature of reality. Monistic groups perceive that there is one ultimate, absolute essence which lies behind all of reality. The goal of these groups is to achieve a conscious, mystical oneness with that essence. Anthony et al. write, “this orientation tends to view time, the material world, and discursive reasoning as illusory. Morality has a pragmatic but not an ultimate metaphysical basis.” The book is focused mainly on these types of groups. Dualistic groups, on the other hand, would reverse these distinctions and see all people on one of two paths to separate destinies.

The second division is called technical-charismatic. It concerns the group’s preferred style of spiritual progress. Technical groups rely chiefly on certain techniques to bring about their desired ends. Meditation groups that make use of a mantra are an example of a technical style. Charismatic groups are those in which a disciple’s relationship with a spiritual master is seen as the path to bringing the disciple to a state of spiritual awakening. Some groups may include both aspects.

The third division, called unilevel-multievel is the most crucial, and forms the heart of this typology. These distinctions concern the group’s perception of the nature of spiritual reality. Unilevel groups, in Anthony et al’s opinion, fall short of being able to bring their members inner transformation, because they .err toward trivialization and misreading of the nature of genuine spiritual reality.” These errors are mainly of two sorts: univocality and consequentialism.

Univocality means that the group adopts a literalism with respect to their language and text(s). The effect of this literalism is to destroy the hierarchy that exists between true gnosis, its symbol(s), and the interpretation of these symbols. Thus, true knowledge is seen as reducible to the group’s particular interpretation. In the authors” words, "the territory is confused with the map, and the interpretation of the map is confused with direct knowledge of the territory; thus, the reader of the map is confused with one who has arrived at the territory.”

Consequentialism is the attitude that the value and proof of spiritual transformation lies in observable, predictable, and mundane consequences. There is therefore a pressure to make certain experiences the great divide between the enlightened and the unenlightened. This is spirituality not as a journey, but as a quantum leap. It ignores the ongoing, laborious nature of true spiritual growth. Consequentialism also ties spiritual progress to visible, often material results.

Multilevel groups, in contrast, do not collapse the spiritual hierarchy. One is, on the other hand, made aware of the transcendent nature of spiritual reality and one’s own imperfect ability to both grasp and communicate it. A mastery of terms and doctrines is therefore not confused with spiritual mastery. A multilevel group will also avoid the error of tying spiritual growth to mundane results or experiences. An authentic group will acknowledge that experiences, as powerful as they may be, can hinder growth as much as help it.

The authors’ assessment of multilevel groups as the type which will permit authentic spiritual growth does not negate any value of the unilevel groups. 7ley are seen to offer valuable integrative functions to their adherents. They offer a solid footing in a society without moorings. On the other hand, because their perceptions fall short of embracing true spiritual reality, adherents of such groups will not find “authentic paths to inner transformation.” In addition, their simplistic approaches to spirituality lend themselves to dangerous distortions. In the Anthony typology, the unilevel, dualistic, charismatic groups are particularly prone to destructive distortions. Their tendency toward a black and white world view, a strong separation between the elect and non-elect, and dependence on charismatic leadership are elements in this vulnerability. Jonestown is cited as an example of this type of group.

In analyzing various types of groups, Anthony and Ecker suggest that different types of groups go awry in different ways: “We have seen that unilevel dualism generates an excessively group-oriented basis for identity, and so is prone to authoritarian developments that neglect the individual. Unilevel monism swings to the opposite extreme of excessive autonomy and individuality, and so is prone to narcissistic tendencies that neglect the welfare of society." While this may be granted in a very general way, it seems that groups that practice destructive cultism all suffer from the tendency of their leader(s) to be authoritarian and manipulative, albeit under differing guises. The sexual exploitation of the follower by an eastem-style group cannot be said to be essentially different from such exploitation by a westem-style group if the effect on the disciple is the same, even if the reasoning is apparently different. The reader will have to judge for himself if the concepts of the Anthony typology are deep enough to cut through universal human tendencies to play God and exploit others.

Rather than follow through with an examination of the remaining specifics of Spiritual Choices, I would like to comment on some of the major strengths and weaknesses of the book as a whole.

Several aspects of Spiritual Choices are particularly helpful. First, the book helps us to think about religious groups in a contextual way. The guidance that is given to a spiritual seeker is made in terms of what his/her goal must be: spiritual realization, however one wishes to define this. Therefore, no matter how salutary the effects of a group may be to the one who participates in it, it should be assessed on the basis of whether it meets its basic obligation: to provide a path for the seeker which will not fall short. A group that fails in this basic area should be eschewed by the true disciple. This contextual view has much to say about religious groups that advertise themselves by appealing to a person’s curiosity, desire for material success, health, or emotional well-being. Jacob Needleman comments, "Frankly, I would prefer a religion that out-and-out says, “You’re going to get a lot of money and sex from this religion” to one that says, “You’re going to get transformation” and is really trying to get money and sex out of it without even knowing it themselves.” This observation points to matters of deception and self-deception at the deepest level and highlights the deceptive aspect of counterfeit groups in a comprehensive way.

Second, the book contains a good deal of helpful historical and cultural analysis. America has passed through great upheaval in the last 25 years, and the authors do a good job of explaining how these changes have affected the religious landscape. They also analyze how our culture breeds confusion concerning true spiritual transformation. They offer some valuable insights into the problem of individualism in the spiritual quest, and they devote time to discussing how rationalism and "reductionism” have affected our appreciation of the balance between objectivism and subjectivism in relation to discernment and knowing. Basically their argument is that we are still recovering a balance from a primarily objective world view that has been overthrown by the counterculture subjectivity of the sixties. The task is now to produce a new synthesis of the two in our present pluralistic society.

Third, it was helpful to have a book written with sensitivity toward spiritual issues. One of the goals of the editors of this work was to counter the tendency toward reductionism in analysis of spiritual groups and experiences. Materialistic viewpoints are simply inadequate to deal with spiritual issues, even when they have effects in the physical-psychological world. It is obvious that the writers have successfully brought their years of spiritual pilgrimage to this book. Those who are also involved in a spiritual search or pilgrimage will appreciate their sensitivity.

Finally, the discussion concerning the role of authority in spiritual groups was comprehensive. The approaches were not only general and theoretical, but specific and practical. In the interviews, both Ram Dass and Claudio Naranjo talked about their misuse of authority. Werner Erhard’s response to this issue is equally interesting, if less candid. Some of the essayists attempt to construct models of spiritual authority that have existed in various religious traditions for some time. There are specific treatments of authority issues such as sexual relations between master and disciple, testing of a master’s claim to spiritual realization, and making distinctions between submission and subjection. For those concerned with abusive religious groups, this aspect may be the most relevant.

in some respects Spiritual Choices is itself a psychospiritual supermarket. One can sample a variety of pathways that exist within the present religious milieu. The interviews and essays also offer a variety of viewpoints on the subject of the spiritual search. Yet the way one responds to the work as a whole depends on one”s own assumptions. What is really the essence of spiritual transformation? In the closing interview at the end of the book, Jacob Needleman comments, “Transformation means everything in man is transformed, is put into a new order, and for that, you have to be sensitive to the total environment of man, the inner as well as the outer.” What then, is the nature of the transformation one sees in the NRMS? St. Francis of Assisi, who is mentioned as one of the authentic mystical figures in history, expressed his relationship to God in loving service to others. In contrast to this, much of what passes for spiritual life and growth in the context of " book never seems to go beyond an elevated form of narcissism, no matter how intricate and subtle it appears. Can one really transcend the ego without reaching beyond one’s sea. The answer to this question may have a lot to do with what one’s real spiritual choices should be.

Timothy Brauns, a former member of a "totalist" spiritual group, is completing a master’s degree in theological studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. His area of concentration is New Testament studies, and he maintains an active interest in new religious movements.